NASA warns a giant asteroid heading for Earth could not be stopped – even with six months notice
An asteroid with the force of a massive nuclear bomb could destroy a huge chunk of Europe if it fell to earth, but a new simulation shows there is nothing we could do to stop it.
NASA conducted a tabletop exercise last week to better understand our in-space prevention against potential space rocks that threaten our existence.
Using a simulation, US and European scientists were put to the test with a hypothetical asteroid detected 35 million miles away from Earth that would collide with our planet in six months if a lifesaving plan could not be developed in time.
The study was conducted over the course of four days, from April 26 through April 29, in which astronomers used radar systems, data imaging and other technologies like the world’s largest telescope.
However, it took the team 184 days to determine the impact region and probability of the asteroid, dubbed 2021PDC, making impact with our planet – four days before ‘doomsday.’
Scientists determined six months is not enough time to prepare a spacecraft to smash into the asteroid and a nuclear bomb may not take a monster space rock down.
Scroll down for video
An asteroid with the force of a massive nuclear bomb could destroy a huge chunk of Europe if it fell to earth, but a new simulation shows we could do nothing to stop it. NASA conducted a tabletop exercise last week to better understand our in-space prevention against potential space rocks that threaten our existence
The last time Earth had a catastrophic visitor was some 66 million years ago when a 6 mile wide asteroid came soaring through the atmosphere, landed in what is Mexico and killed nearly every living thing on the planet – specifically dinosaurs.
Although the idea of an asteroid of such magnitude has only been seen in movies, such as the 1998 film Armageddon, NASA and other space agencies are not taking any chances and are preparing just in case.
The exercise, called ‘Space Mission Options for the 2021 PDC Hypothetical Asteroid Impact Scenario,’ involved nine NASA scientists who spent four days looking at how such an event would unfold unfold over the course of six months as if it were a real world emergency.
Day 1 began on April 19, 2021 with the discovery of 2021PDC by the Pan-STARRS near-Earth object survey project, operated by the University of Hawaii for NASA’s Planetary Defense Program.
It took scientists three months to determined the asteroid had a 100% probability of its expected impact region, which fell within Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia.
The simulated asteroid was found to be 35 million miles away and at this time it had just a five percent chance of impacting Earth on October 20.
Day two of the exercise jumped to May 2, 2021, where astronomers analyzed data they gathered to refine 2021PDC’s orbit and impact probability.
The team used image data collected in 2014 of the asteroid’s previous close approach to Earth.
Pictured is map showing potential impact sites of 2021 PDC, which scientists created to spur interdisciplinary conversations about planetary defense. It took the 184 days to determine the impact region and probability of the asteroid making impact with our planet
This data allowed astronomers to reduce orbit uncertainties and conclude the simulated asteroid had a 100 percent probability of hitting Earth in Europe or northern Africa.
And this is when the team quickly went to work on how to prevent 2021PDC from impacting Earth.
Space mission designers looked to disrupt the asteroid before impact, but concluded the short amount of time ‘did not allow a credible space mission to be undertaken, given the current state of technology,’ participants said.
Scientists also proposed nuking the asteroid, which would see as the obvious attack to many, but the team found hidden obstacles.
Simulations showed that if a nuclear device made contact, the space rock could be decreased to a less destructive size.
The simulation suggested 2021PDC could be anywhere from 114 feet to half a mile in size and it is not clear if a giant bomb could take the asteroid down.
On Day 3, the exercise jumped to June 30 when the world was preparing for impact.
The final day of the hypothetical asteroid impact exercise, Day 4, fast forwarded to October 14 – just six days before impact. The failure of the exercise lies with our inability to send a spacecraft to the asteroid months before impact
Using the world’s largest telescopes, astronomers around the globe continued to track 2021PDC every night.
Through this they refined the asteroid’s orbit and significantly narrow its expected impact region to fall within Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia.
The final day of the hypothetical asteroid impact exercise, Day 4, fast forwarded to October 14 – just six days before impact.
2021PDC was now an estimated 3.9 million miles from Earth, which was close enough for Goldstone Solar System Radar to detect and analyze 2021PDC and significantly refine the asteroid’s size and physical characteristics.
This showed the asteroid was much smaller than previously thought, thus reducing the expected region of damage from the impact.
At this point, astronomers were able to narrow the impact region to be centered near the border of Germany, the Czech Republic, and Austria, and determined the asteroid had a 99 percent probability of impacting within this region.
Lindley Johnson, NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, said: ‘Each time we participate in an exercise of this nature, we learn more about who the key players are in a disaster event, and who needs to know what information.’
The joint NASA-FEMA exercises included representatives of several other federal agencies, including the Departments of Defense and State. Pictured are scientists conducted simulations as if it were a real world emergency
‘These exercises ultimately help the planetary defense community communicate with each other and with our governments to ensure we are all coordinated should a potential impact threat be identified in the future.’
NASA has participated in seven impact scenarios—four at previous Planetary Defense Conferences (2013, 2015, 2017, and 2019) and three in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The joint NASA-FEMA exercises included representatives of several other federal agencies, including the Departments of Defense and State.
Dr. Paul Chodas, director of CNEOS, said: ‘Hypothetical asteroid impact exercises provide opportunities for us to think about how we would respond in the event that a sizeable asteroid is found to have a significant chance of impacting our planet.’
‘Details of the scenario—such as the probability of the asteroid impact, where and when the impact might occur—are released to participants in a series of steps over the days of the conference to simulate how a real situation might evolve.’